ANNAPOLIS -- For three years, Jerry Dawson's existence as a wide receiver on the Navy football team could be likened to that of a sprinter without speed, a marksman without a gun or a slugger without a bat.
In other words, while playing in the option offense used by former coach Elliot Uzelac, Dawson was essentially useless.
"It was tough, especially when you get down and you feel perhaps, if you were doing something else besides blocking, you would make a difference in the game," said Dawson, who, before this season had a total of 21 catches in three years. "In high school, we had a run-and-shoot offense, and, coming from that situation to here, it was really a difficult adjustment."
Dawson faced yet another adjustment under new coach George Chaump, but he proved in Navy's 28-17, season-opening win that it hasn't been a difficult one. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior tied a school record Saturday with three touchdown receptions; he ranks second in the nation in all-purpose yards (228) and scoring (16 points) and seventh in receiving yards per game (126).
"Am I more emotional? When you're out there having that much fun, you get into the ballgame a lot more," Dawson said after his enthusiastic performance in the Richmond game. "It's a lot different when you're out running around free, looking for the ball, rather than looking to crack-block a 6-3, 200-pound free safety."
Chaump became a fan of Dawson's as soon as he saw the Detroit native in his first practice.
"He's a young man who works hard. He doesn't know anything but all-out," Chaump said. "Kids like that usually do big things, and you saw it [Saturday]. He made the big plays. He's a fabulous little receiver."
Dawson was a fabulous receiver at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, where he was an all-conference and all-metro pick. His prep performance drew attention from schools such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Dawson was a standout off the field as well. He gained academic all-America honors while sidestepping the problems of his northeast Detroit neighborhood.
"Oh, yes, it's bad. We have a drug house right next door, and people around here are always calling the police," said Dawson's mother, Ramona Dawson. "But we're born-again Christians, and we kept him in a church surrounding. He and his brother said they never wanted to get involved with drugs. He just put everything into football."
Said Dawson: "I didn't grow up in a great neighborhood, but it wasn't the worst. My parents set an example, so when we got into a situation where we didn't feel comfortable, we knew something was wrong because of the way we were taught at home.
"Sometimes, it was hard. Peer pressure starts to mount, and, at times, you want to go out and do your own thing. But most of the people I hung out with understood and respected what I represented and the background I came from. My father [Earl] was a disciplinarian, but he wasn't a tyrant. My parents just wanted us to know they loved us, cared about us and cared where we went."
Dawson was set on attending Penn, but changed his mind after visiting the academy during signing week. He said he knew he'd benefit from Navy's academics, but he had no idea what to expect in football.
"I thought it was a good opportunity academically, professionally and for football. You play some pretty big schools, and you get some some national exposure," said Dawson, a general science major. "Had I known they would have the wishbone, it would have been another factor to look at. But I'm not sure whether it would have changed my decision."
But Dawson just went about his business quietly, much the same way he did things when he was growing up.
"In middle school," his mother said, "he was the valedictorian, but I didn't know until graduation day when I saw him making his speech. He never said a thing. He hasn't changed. He never said anything about how he felt at Navy with football. He would just smile and just kept things to himself."
The new regime at Navy may give Dawson plenty of reasons to smile.
"Chaump is doing a good job in helping us bring some pride back to ourselves," Dawson said. "He's not a loud, boisterous coach. He says things that have a lot of meaning behind them and makes you feel you have something to prove to yourself, more than anyone else.
"I'd just like to stay healthy and score some points -- definitely score some points. I can do that in our new system. This is fun. A whole lot of fun."